Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

I've been thinking recently about teaching and the kind of things my teachers chose to tell me. Considering the amount of time they spent imparting information to us, and the importance they gave to us remembering that information, and the way in which we were graded for our roles in life on the basis of examinations , which tested our ability to remember - considering all that, it seems amazing that they never taught us HOW to remember things.

HOW to remember? Isn't that something we just know instinctively? If so, memory would be similar to what is often said about creative writing. You either have the ability or you don't. It can't be taught. In other words - the cult of literary genius.

Perhaps it is easier to think that the people who write great works of fiction were just born great. The alternative - that they to some degree acquired greatness - implies that we too could become greater writers if only we worked harder at it. More comfortable, perhaps, to worship from afar.

I don't believe the truth is that simple. Yes, people are born with areas of strength and weakness - relative to the rest of the population. But we can all of us work on improving. And it is surprising what the learning of techniques can achieve. I have a very poor short term memory. But I have taught myself a couple of well-known memory techniques and thus enabled myself to get around the problem. A couple of years ago, I could not have remembered a list of three or four things to get from the supermarket (not without a lot of effort). Since practicing the loci method of memorisation, I find I can effortlessly remember long lists of things to buy. All I needed was just technique.

But when we talk about creative writing in terms of technique, it starts to sound dangerously like a craft instead of art. What room is there for the cult of genius?

But consider this observation from the excellent novelist David Hood. Having spoken to many authors and asked them HOW they wrote, he noticed that each answered by describing the techniques that they had developed to get around things that did not come naturally to them. Plotting, perhaps. Or characterization. Or getting ideas for stories.

Why didn't they describe the things that they were naturally good at? For the same reason that the teachers never taught me HOW to remember things. These things came so naturally to them that they were not aware HOW. It just happened.

I do believe creative writing can be taught. But perhaps there is room for a little bit of genius as well.

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